LONESOME OAKS RANCH, Texas I slid the safety off Troy Syfrett's Remington 870 Express Magnum, and as I began to raise the gun, the bird's glare shot directly at me.
I froze, unable to breathe. As his head went back down, I inched it up again. Another glare. By this time I was as focused as an ADHD diagnosee can be.
"Take him!" Syfrett said.
Now, I've shot plenty of shotgun in my life. Trap, skeet, action courses, quail hunts you name it, I've probably done it. But never before had I had a turkey above my bead.
I had plenty of confidence in my abilities with a scattergun until David Lau and Troy kept telling me that absolutely everyone misses their first turkey. No exceptions. You'd better believe it had me second-guessing my handiness with Syfrett's old Remington.
Other than the first-bird jinx, my shot at getting a bird was pretty good. Rio Grande turkey had overrun the territory.
I was with Troy Syfrett from Panama City, Fla., on his ranch in central Texas. Before we had even reached our spot for the morning, gobblers were making their presence known.
The tree we set up on was slightly elevated, a tactical advantage for any hunter. About 200 yards in front of us was a patch of oaks and mesquite that seemed to be on fire with gobblers.
"Dang, look at them big old birds," Syfrett whispered as he glassed a pair of boss birds about 200 yards away.
Each of his calls was met with resounding gobbles, but they never moved any closer.
"They must've seen some hens on the other side of the thicket and took off," he said.
Discouraged but not desperate, I shifted my weight to my buttcheek that had feeling in it. We'd been there a little over an hour.
Another 20 minutes or so passed when I noticed a shadow coming along a corridor of mesquite trees to my left, which was to Syfrett's back. As it got bigger and bigger it showed itself in the sun, revealing a fire-truck-red head. I nudged Troy, who couldn't see the approaching red-headed phantom.
He looked up at me.
My bugged-out eyes must've given it away.
"Gobbler?" I nodded slightly.
"Can you shoot it?"
Well then kill the ... "
That's when the doubt crept in and the glares began. After the "Take him!" cry from Syfrett, I was out of choices.
Call it beginner's luck if you will, but that bird flipped tail over end like he was hit with, well, a 3-inch payload of No. 6 steel.
"Did you hit him?" Troy asked as he swung around to see a pile of feathers falling to earth and the gobbler lifeless.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," I replied.
Troy turned to me and shot a "what'd-you-do-that-for?" look.
"Well crap," he said, "I would've let him get a little closer than that,"
I stumbled to my feet and walked off 53 paces with my 6-foot, 5-inch stride.
"That was a heckuva shot, my man. Wow," he said. "Walk it off again to be sure."
Yep, 53 it was.
El Rio Grande
The Rio is very similar to the other species of turkey, but Calvin Smith, who helps Syfrett manage his land for turkey, said there are two key differences. Rios can be a little taller than Easterns and have more copperish-green in their feathers than any other species.
In theory, they're not any more crafty or cunning than the other birds. They just look a little different and are found from Texas to Mexico to California to Oregon to Kansas.
Smith hunted about a mile away from Syfrett and I. He set up a Reel Turkey decoy next to a mill and ultimately called in a giant gobbler. Mine had a 10-inch beard and 1-inch spurs and his had a beard that dragged across county lines.
"Just feeding that Reel Turkey (making her head bob by gently pulling the string) gets them in closer, sometimes closer than you'd like," he said.
Smith was hearing a lot of the same gobblers Syfrett and I were hearing.
Hills are alive with the sound of gobblers
Troy Syfrett's ranch is called Lonesome Oaks and is located just west of the geographical center of Texas. It's 12 miles west of Brady and 9 miles north of Menard in McCulloch County.
Collectively, Syfrett owns 6,000 acres divided among several ranches along with several thousand leased acres. We hunted on his "honey hole" ranch called High Point, which is nearly 2,000 acres. His High Point ranch is bordered by the famous 40,000-acre Ford Ranch, all of which is low-fenced.
Calvin Smith, also of Panama City, Fla., is a long-time friend of Syfrett's and helps him tend to the land. He often accompanies Syfrett on hunts.
"The most amazing thing about hunting in this area is that it is all outstanding, and I think that's partially due to the fact that most everything including the Ford Ranch is low-fenced," Smith explained. "That means they're not penned up or in a cage, but they can go wherever they please. The cool thing is that you may kill a bird this morning that was 4 1/2- miles from here yesterday."
Syfrett's ranch is in Texas' hill country, but his land enjoys rolling hills rather than the rocky peaks found farther to the south. It's also just far enough from the desert to be nearly lush.
This past year, the region had gotten enough rainfall to make things green. There were lots of cactus patched and "shinnery," or super-thick patches of blended vegetation. It's all beautiful property, just watch where you sit. After all it is Texas, land of cattle (and their droppings), larger-than-life-rattlesnakes and pricklier-than-your-mother-in law's-upper-lip cactus.
Getting to hunt with Syfrett three days altogether two in Florida and one in Texas was a pleasure. He's ambitious (he owns nearly a half-dozen businesses, everything from land leasing to real estate to beach chair rentals), friendly, charitable and knowledgeable. I must thank him for the opportunity to bag my first bird.
Syfrett offers several opportunities to hunt his land in central Texas for trophy whitetail (a 160-class has been taken on his land) and Rios. His can be reached at 850-819-4600.